Tories race to fulfil childcare pledge
The government is making an extra £50m in grants available to schools and nurseries as it scrambles to provide the places required to fulfil the Conservatives’ pre-election pledge of 30 hours a week of free childcare.
The early years minister, Caroline Dinenage, is to announce that more schools will be able to apply for capital grants to invest in new buildings and improve facilities, doubling the initial £50m of grant announced in January, which has already been used up.
Dinenage said the extra funding would help create 9,000 new childcare places. “This investment will deliver more childcare places to working parents, giving them the benefits of 30 hours’ free childcare while giving their children high-quality early education that sets them up for life,” she said. The money will be allocated from the Department for Education’s budget, as part of the government’s pledge to spend £6bn a year on childcare by 2020.
But the shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner, said the injection of new money underlined how concerned the government was about whether the pledge could be delivered in September, as planned. “Parents and providers will rightly be asking why this policy still isn’t ready with only a few months to go until the roll-out of the 30 hours,” she said.
“The Tories’ inability to properly plan for their childcare promise has led to chaos and confusion in the sector. These constant re-announcements of a few more places here and there make it clear they still don’t have a clue as to how to deliver on this key election commitment.”
Childcare providers have warned that the government is underfunding the new places, making it difficult to expand provision sufficiently to meet demand.
Neil Leitch, the chief executive of the Pre-school Learning Alliance, said: “While extra funding to support the 30-hour offer is of course welcome, a further 9,000 childcare places for a scheme that the government says requires 390,000 in total – and we estimate requires 500,000 – simply isn’t going to address the very valid concerns that have been raised about the viability of the scheme.
“With less than half of childcare providers currently committed to delivering 30-hours places, and many of those opting into the scheme considering limiting the number of places they deliver, we know that capacity is going to be a real issue when the offer rolls out in September – and the fact that this additional money has now been found suggests the government does, too.”
The policy was one of the Conservatives’ most eye-catching election promises. The party’s 2015 manifesto stated: “Our commitment to you – bring in tax-free childcare to support parents back into work and give working parents of three- and four-year-olds 30 hours of free childcare a week.”
However, it subsequently emerged that “working parents” meant only those who earned “the equivalent of 16 hours working at either the national living wage per week for those aged 25 or over, or the national minimum wage for those aged 24 or under”. The highest-earning families, where at least one parent earns £100,000 or more, will not qualify.
Labour has warned that those whose income is volatile, including parents on zero-hours contracts, for example, could struggle to prove their entitlement, creating uncertainty for families.